22 December 2014

My Top Ten Books of 2014

In each of the last couple of years, I have put together a list of my top 10 favorite books from the year. Parenthetically, several months ago I decided to shoot for 100 books this year, but a friend of mine encouraged me to intentionally not meet that goal. I had been on track to avoid that goal, but in looking back through the year's list, I overshot the goal by a few.

This was a banner year for book reading as I read some exceptionally good books. Sometimes it is hard to know what to include in my top 10, but this year, it wasn't difficult because I fudged a bit. You will see how below.

1. Extravagant Grace by Barbara Duguid. I read Duguid's book early in 2014 and I began my review, "I picked up Extravagant Grace: God's Glory Displayed in Our Weakness (2013) on the recommendation of a friend (Keith Plummer) who tweeted, 'OK, so I didn't put together a Best Books of 2013 list, but if I had, this would have topped it.' I received an Amazon gift card for Christmas and included this book as a part of my order.

"Unlike my friend, I did put together a best books of 2013 list, BUT if I had read Extravagant Grace, this would also have topped my list. To me, this book was simply remarkable. Strongly influenced by the work of John Newton, Duguid wrote an extended meditation on the work of grace in the lives of weak sinners."  As far as I am concerned, Extravagant Grace maintained the top spot all year.  

2. Everybody's Normal Till You Get to Know Them by John Ortberg. I loved this book. In my review, I described it as gold. In the book, Ortberg explores why relationships and boundaries are important. He writes with an engaging style and is a wonderful storyteller. So far, I have purchased 5 copies and given a few away. If you read this review, and you want a copy AND you will actually read it, let me know. The first person to let me know, I will give a copy of the book. [Honorable Mention: I also read Ortberg's Soul Keeping this year, which is also excellent.]

3. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity by Nabeel Qureshi. When I first received a copy of this book, the Amazon ratings seemed improbably high, but my 5 star rating was happily added. The story is autobiographical and deals with Qureshi's explorations of, and eventual conversion to Christianity. 

4. The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ by Ray Ortlund. In this book,
Ortlund moves out with the gospel in concentric circles, starting with its importance to the self, then the church, and eventually "for everything". He rightly argues that the gospel transforms at each of these levels. In other words, Christ's redeeming work is not just for the individual soul, though it is assuredly for that, but it is also for the whole world. [Honorable Mention: I also read Ortlund's Supernatural Living for Natural People, an extended meditation on Romans 8. This would also be in my Top 10 of the year, but I will just include it here so I can write about more books.]

5. Joy For the World by Greg Forster. Forster believes that the Christian's joy in God can change things. I believe he is right. In my review, I wrote, "though I have read hundreds of books over the last few years, there are only a very few that I consider must reads. Joy for the World will now be on that list and that is especially true if you are drawn to books like Not the Way It's Supposed to Be by Plantinga, Culture Making by Crouch, or any of the works of Tim Keller, Chuck Colson, or Francis Schaeffer." 

6. Why Sin Matters by Mark McMinn.  A good friend of mine loaned me a copy of this book. I left it sit for a while, but once I began reading, I couldn't put it down. In my review, I noted that although the front cover would lead one to believe this is primarily a book about sin, I think it is much more about grace. In fact, I emailed Dr McMinn and told him how enamored I was with this book and he sent me a signed copy. I encouraged him to talk with his publisher about a re-release of the book under a different title because I want to see people read this one.  

7. What's Best Next by Matt Perman. I probably would not have chosen this book if it was not included as a selection from a blogger review program I am a part of, but seeing it there, I thought I might as well give it a try. I was not disappointed. I went in wondering how someone could apply the gospel to issues of productivity and I came away with my eyes opened wide. There is so much meat in this book that I will likely have to revisit it a few times to a get a fuller sense of what Perman has to say. 

8. Messy Spirituality by Mike Yaconelli. I heard about this book from my friend Mark.  In my review, I wrote, "Messy Spirituality is not a book for those who have it together in their spiritual lives. It is not for those who are pretty good at Christianity. It is not for straight-laced, well-behaved people who like their Christianity easily definable and controllable. Rather, it is a book for sinners, wretches, and rogues who have no hope apart from Jesus who loves them and lavishes them with grace." This book will likely leave some of you feeling uncomfortable in the same way that Brennan Manning leaves you feeling that way. 

9. Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves. This year, I read a handful of books about the Trinity and this was my favorite of the bunch. Reeve's approach drew me closer to God, which is a great outcome of any book.  If you want to know more about the Trinity this is a great one. 

10. Jesus, Continued... by JD Greear. Jesus Continued... is about the Holy Spirit. Evangelicals all too often have a poor pneumatology, or theology of the Spirit. In this book, he writes passionately and in a way that gives glimpses to what we are missing. 

More Honorable Mentions: I read some other excellent books this year. I read through nearly all of Larry Crabb's works this year and their influence upon me is unparalleled. I have some favorites, though I generally like them all quite well. If I would have included him in the above list, he probably would have replaced some of those on the list.  I guess my advice is, read Larry.  There were also several re-reads this year that are perennial favorites of mine: Desiring God by John Piper, Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan, True Spirituality and the Mark of the Christian by Francis Schaeffer, Prodigal God and the Freedom of Self Forgetfulness by Tim Keller, and Mere Christianity and the Great Divorce by CS Lewis.

If you are looking for some good reading material, anything from this list would be wonderful. If you want recommendations on a specific theme, just ask! 

19 December 2014

Finding Beauty in the Ordinary

I recently learned from Eugene Peterson's book The Jesus Way that when the sculptor, Rodin, would instruct his students, he would tell them, "don't look for a good-looking model, some perfectly proportioned specimen--take anyone you come across. They are all beautiful." Somehow, we've exchanged what is truly beautiful for counterfeits and cheap substitutes. Men exchange the unique beauty of their wives for imposters on a screen. They trade their wives, beautiful with wrinkles and dimples and scars and blemishes, a relief map of a lifetime lived, for two dimensional on screen attempts to portray what society commands should be beautiful. Wives look beyond husbands who possess a lifetime of emotions and thoughts and motivations-- real people--swapping them for pulp characters who lacks nuance, who are lifeless.

Our magazine covers look the same. Our actors look the same. Our hamburgers look the same.

We have attempted to homogenize what is meant to be unique.

Every person you meet is breathtakingly beautiful. Every sunrise, every sunset unique. Every meal, every conversation, every day, a joy to behold.

Slow down and breathe delight.

18 December 2014

Book Review: NASB Note-Taker's Bible

Not only do I like the Bible--the Word of God--but I like Bibles. I like to look at the different translations, construction, and features of the Bible. Recently, I have been looking for a new Bible with wide margins that allows ample space for taking notes. Zondervan's NASB Note-Taker's Bible seems to foot the bill nicely.

 when I do reviews of Bibles, I like to discuss the operating system.  This particular Bible is in the New American Standard Bible (NASB), which is considered to be one of the more literal, word for word translations of the Bible. If you are trying to get a feel for exactly what the Greek and Hebrew say without mastering these languages, this version is a good bet. However, with the rather more literal approach, it can at times feel wooden when you are reading it. Regardless, it remains a wonderful translation of the Bible. I would add, however, that Zondervan has also released the Note-Taker's Bible in the following versions: NIV, NKJV, KJV, and Amplified.

The Bible itself contains all 66 books, both Old and New Testaments. The Bible also includes a concordance, promises from the Bible, perspectives from the Bible, ministry of Jesus, teachings of Jesus, miracles of Jesus, and parables of Jesus. On the other hand, it does not contain study notes, chapter introductions, or cross references.

 At just over a thousand pages, this Bible is smaller than I expected it to be. It is certainly of a size that one could easily transport it to church or in a backpack. The print is a bit smaller than I would like, it appears to be about an 8-point font, but the lettering stands out on the page. The words of Jesus are in red, a feature that I personally do not like because the entire Bible is the word of God, not just those red ones.It is presented in a double column format, a common feature that I wish would become less common, yet seems to be the established standard for most Bibles. In my opinion, a single column format improves readability. As to the primary selling point, the outside columns are generous, by my measure nearly 1.5 inches. The bottoms of the page leave more than 1.5 inches. If you wisely purchase good archival pens like Pigma Microns, you will be able to write plenty. The gutter (interior margin) is a bit cramped, though you should still be able to read the words. The pages are bright white and there is minimal ghosting.

One of the features I look for in a Bible is will it lay flat when opened. As you can see from one of the pictures, I opened the Bible to Genesis 1 and it lays flat open without support. Initially it closed on its own after a few moments, though I was able to open it wide and have it stay open on its own. To me, this is an essential feature and one to look for in purchasing. After removing the dust jacket (because let's be honest, if you are in the Bible, your Bible shouldn't be collecting dust), I was presented with a dark, rather unadorned Bible. Rightly so. The overall construction seems quite good.

On the whole, this is a very good Bible that I would happily recommend. The availability of multiple versions is a beneficial feature. I did not see an ESV version, but this Bible is in some ways reminiscent of Crossway's Legacy Bible, which is my go to Bible. The list price is $34.99, though I have seen it for less. As a side note, Bible readers place many demands on publishers. We want our Bibles to be small, yet with large print. We like study notes, but want ample space to write our notes. We want them durable, but inexpensive. This Bible is a good balance.

A complimentary copy of of this book was provided to me free of charge in exchange for a review through Zondervan and the Book Look Bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review of this book. The review represents my own viewpoint.

17 December 2014

As Straw From Fire

As we wait in anticipation to celebrate the coming Christ in the flesh, I thought it a good time to ponder the words of St Athanasius (296-373) in his incomparable book On the Incarnation. I was struck by this section early in the book. As you get ready to celebrate Christmas, ponder these words--slowly and often.

For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us. He saw the reasonable race, the race of men that, like Himself, expressed the Father's Mind, wasting out of existence, and death reigning over all in corruption. He saw that corruption held us all the closer, because it was the penalty for the Transgression; He saw, too, how unthinkable it would be for the law to be repealed before it was fulfilled. He saw how unseemly it was that the very things of which He Himself was the Artificer should be disappearing. He saw how the surpassing wickedness of men was mounting up against them; He saw also their universal liability to death. All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own. Nor did He will merely to become embodied or merely to appear; had that been so, He could have revealed His divine majesty in some other and better way. No, He took our body, and not only so, but He took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of human father—a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man. He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt. Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.

10 December 2014

Book Review: Emotionally Healthy Spirituality

I had not heard of Peter Scazzero's Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (2006) until a few months ago when a pastor friend of mine mentioned it in passing. Since then, when I have shared that I was reading this book, many friends and acquaintances told me how excellent it was. I am not sure why they left me in the dark so long. 

As a pastor of a church, Scazzero was trying to lead through pure effort with no attention to his emotional life. Only when his relational life began to fray at the edges did he begin to take a closer look at emotion. At the outset of the book, he identified 10 symptoms of emotionally unhealthy spirituality that serve as a useful diagnostic tool.

Once we understand our emotional feebleness, Scazzero spends the later half of the book talking about what to do about. He encourages a deeper look inside, acknowledging the reality of emotions as a normal part of the Christian life. I particularly appreciated chapter 6, which dealt with the concept of a dark night of the soul, an issue too frequently ignored in the Christian life. For Scazzero, I think rightly, the dark night is a normative part of the Christian life, though too often, people run from it, rather than toward it, much to their detriment.

Near the end of the book, he encourages the practice of two specific disciplines--the daily office and the Sabbath--to grow in our understanding of God and understanding of self.  Attention to God and delighting in his creation are essential practices that we too often hurry past. 

On the whole, I think this is very beneficial book. It is a relatively easy read, but if you read it, take your time and ponder what the author has to say. He writes with lists and bullet points, which many people will find desirable, though don't believe that represents naive ideas that can be cast aside quickly. 

07 December 2014

Finding Blessings in the Dry Parts

The Holy Bible contains 66 books, 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. If you're like me, you prefer certain books to others. Almost everyone likes John and Romans. For me, Ephesians is also a favorite. In the same way, there are other books that you may avoid if you can help it. For many people Numbers, the fourth book of the Bible, tops that list. It's often repetitive and unclear. But there is beauty.  

In Numbers 6:24-26, we read Moses's benediction:

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

I have been soaking in these words for the last few days. If you are a believer, God is for you and God is with you. He will not let you go.  The look upon his face is not stern, it shines with grace. The word countenance can imply a smiling look of approval. Imagine God looking upon you, smile upon his face, saying, "rest child, you are mine."

03 December 2014

Book Review: Eat this Book

Eugene Peterson, the author of the Message paraphrase of the Bible is a prolific author. He has also authored several other books, including a 5 volume spiritual theology series. Eat This Book (2006) is the second book in the series. Peterson informs the reader about the importance of how we read the Bible and not just that we read it. Too often, evangelicals come to the Bible with a desire to parse and master the word rather than have the word master them. In the first section, he makes a strong case for the transformative nature of scripture. In the second, he presents the Lectio Divina, a method of sacred reading. Well, to be fair, he is careful not to provide a prescriptive method, but rather talks about what spiritual reading looks like. I particularly benefited from his description of the contemplatio as this has never been entirely clear to me before.  In the third section, he addresses how Bibles are translated including his own approach to translating the Message. This section did not flow from the other two, but was interesting nonetheless. I think this is a beneficial read for those wanting to grow in godliness through interacting with the word.

02 December 2014

Practicing Settledness

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Next Step School of Spiritual Direction in Colorado Springs. Weeks like this are a constant flood of thoughts, feelings, and ideas to be processed. No normal person can process them all; anyway, I can't. Rather, I have learned that it is better to sit with open hands in the flood, eventually grasping onto an idea or two that I can examine more closely once the deluge passes.

One idea that has remained in these last few days is that of "settledness." I do not recall if it was over dinner with Larry or if it was during a group meeting where the term arose. Probably both. Good ideas tend to swirl back around. What really has stirred me is the connection between settledness and masculinity.

As Larry and I have come to know each other a little bit, one of the things that he is helping me to see about myself is my desire to please others. I like to be liked. Unfortunately, because of that desire, I tend to live out of a relational persona that masks my true self. One of his encouragements to me is to live more authentically out of the masculine identity that already resides in me. As a Christian man, my identity is found fully in Christ and the Holy Spirit lives through me. Knowing who, and whose, I am leads to settledness regarding how I relate to others.

I do not need others to appreciate me for my intellect nor my humor. 
I do not need to live to impress.
I do not need to soften my answers to make people happy.

Because my identity is bound up with Christ, I am free to be who God has created me to be.